The other Misick: a redeeming tale of selflessness and unity
Washington Misick chooses his words carefully, each one delivered at a steady, considered pace. So the candour that accompanies them is unexpected.
It emerges when he talks about the challenges currently facing the Turks & Caicos Islands. Again when he is quizzed about who he thinks is best placed to lead the Progressive National Party after his own imminent departure. And once again when asked to compare his leadership style to that of his youngest sibling who was at the nation's helm during some of the biggest scandals it has ever seen.
Such guilelessness, along with an unassuming nature and propensity for putting caution before charisma, has made him perhaps an unlikely politician.
In an era where autocrats rise to power on little more than charm, rhetoric and a sharp suit — conflating strength with unbridled exercise of power — humility and authenticity are hardly buzzwords. Yet it's precisely these qualities he insists are paramount but absent among most contemporary officeholders.
Finding a replacement to head the PNP after his term ends is an undertaking that, by his own admission, consumed him for much of 2018.
Throughout the turbulence of recent times, Misick has been a judicious presence, working quietly to get the TCI back on its feet after a decade of controversial British intervention in its affairs, alarming rates of violent crime, rampant illegal immigration and tribulations wreaked by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Now, as he prepares to exit politics for good in 2020 — the same year he turns 70 — he's devoting his attentions to helping to safeguard the future of the islands to which he has dedicated five decades of public service.
It is that long commitment to his country, along with his efforts and accomplishments as Opposition leader, which have resulted in him being named Weekly News Person of the Year 2018, an accolade that he was “taken aback” by.
He describes the past 12 months as “very active”, as he has striven to reorganise the PNP and guide it on to a “stronger footing”, endeavours hindered by postponements to the party's national congress and thus the election of a new chief and executives.
One of the problems with local politics, he continues in that measured tone, is a tendency for a cult following to arise.
“People have a convoluted concept of what a political leader should be like; his job, his function,” he explains. “It's important to break away from that strongman view.
“In Third World politics, leaders have tended to be charismatic and, while that has worked in liberation movements, they have often turned out to do more harm than good in the long term. It's the same thing that's happened in the TCI. A good 21st-century leader is someone with self-knowledge, who is authentic and true to himself, able to orchestrate his following based on shared values, core beliefs and a democratic process, and whose focus is on his team rather than himself as a saviour.
“Leadership is about teaching people, helping them face challenges, embrace opportunities and coalesce around ideas that are of benefit to all.”
It was never Misick's intention to be anything more than an interim Opposition leader when he took on the role after the PNP lost the 2016 election, prompting the erstwhile premier, Rufus Ewing, to quit.
“I see my position as providing experience and advising the next generation, rather than being out front leading the party,” he says. “It's a challenge to find the right person, not because there aren't capable people but because a lot of very capable people are busy making a living and don't want to put their families through the rigours and negativity that sometimes surround a political career.”
Stringent British oversight and constitutional reform have inarguably changed the TCI political scene.
“It's no longer a winner-takes-all system and to me that's a good thing. But, in some cases, it's wound too tight and one could become frustrated in terms of their ability to achieve a legitimate agenda,” Misick continues.
Would he describe himself as a reluctant leader? He laughs, hesitates.
“Yes, I would say so. Ideally, this position should be held by someone interested in continuing in politics, which I am not.”
So, who would have his vote?
“At the risk of being partial — which I am — I would like to see Rufus Ewing return. He's sharp with sound values, he has the experience and understands the challenges. Plus he was head of the administration that successfully stabilised the economy and returned growth.”
The value of a solid fiscal understanding is not something Misick overestimates. His illustrious commercial career includes several banking and big-league accountancy roles, in addition to many years in real estate. But it is public service that's in his blood, and a journey he embarked on from a young age.
While other teens were lapping up the nascent freedoms of the Swinging Sixties, the Bottle Creek-born eldest son of 12 siblings was joining the police force as a fresh-faced 16-year-old.
Those three years as a police constable stationed in South Caicos and Grand Turk opened Misick's eyes to the “realities of life”, and would have a marked effect on his future path.
These days, he looks back on his “rustic” North Caicos childhood with fondness and nostalgia.
“I grew up in a family that was service-oriented; my dad was involved in local government.” he recalls.
“My parents were literate but not educated; they went to a one-room grade school and worked as subsistence farmers. We were poor but very, very close. They were strong disciplinarians and as a kid I worked hard in the field.”
Today he wishes his own seven children, all privately and university-educated, had experienced more of that “character-forming” way of life.
Misick's first foray into politics was as campaign manager for the PNP in the 1980 and 1984 elections — the party was triumphant on both occasions. In 1988, he was appointed to the Legislative Council by Michael Bradley, who was then the Governor. Two years later he made a successful bid for leadership, taking the PNP to victory and becoming Chief Minister.
That four-year reign was followed by an eight-year stint as Opposition leader after two successive election defeats. Then, in 2003, a new face appeared on the scene — one who would change the course of the islands' history for ever.
Misick was ousted from the PNP top spot by his brother, Michael, an affable and effervescent character whose brash style was a far cry from Washington's own pragmatic, circumspect approach.
Party members voted in favour of the new injection of energy, and Washington found himself not only ejected as party leader but from government, too, after failing to win a seat in elections of the same year. It would be almost a decade before he would return to politics.
Asked for his views on those heady, halcyon days of the Noughties, with Michael governing the islands, he is diplomatic but frank.
“I would have preferred it if he didn't win the party leadership, but it was civil,” he remembers.
“In mature democracies, if a leader loses an election, he resigns. I continued because no one else came forward, so to bring in a new leader in 2003 was the correct thinking.”
He continues: “Mike and I have different approaches. He's a fantastic marketing machine, he's charismatic, gregarious and a great people person, whereas I am more subdued. Those years were a time of unprecedented economic growth. That's not intended to take anything away from him, but I believe there was a certain amount of organic growth that would have taken place anyway.
“I am a bit more cautious in the way I approach things and, of course, wisdom and maturity have something to do with it. I am not quite as impacted by the headlights of stardom, so we would not have ended up having the same scandals.
“But Mike has a tremendous ability to engage people. In 2003, he had a narrow win but in 2007 he had a landslide. He was liked; people were endeared to him.”
Six years have passed since the TCI returned to self-governance — albeit with strict conditions — after three humiliating years back under direct British rule owing to “endemic” corruption. Still, Misick is not an advocate for full independence.
“It's really just a label. I don't think small islands like ours could survive with political independence. What I would really like to see is a stable economy and a return to some of the provisions of the 2006 constitution.”
For now, there are different concerns keeping this grandfather of seven, also a Seventh-day Adventist and Justice of the Peace, awake at night.
Disregard for the environment and the “breakdown of discipline in communities” are the biggest challenges for the nation, he thinks.
“I am afraid for the TCI,” he says, simply. “People are becoming so influenced by American culture that it's damaging the family structure and leading to an increase in deviant behaviour and crime.
“When I grew up, it was the village's responsibility to raise a child. Somehow we need to get back those traditional values these islands have been known for.”
One of the reasons he is keen to leave politics is so he can focus more on “unifying” the TCI's “fractured” society.
He says: “As more people have come to live among us, there's a huge amount of misunderstanding between the various groups. I want to help build community solidarity. Our existence depends on finding ways to coexist.”
Misick continues: “I am really worried about our environment. We are not careful with what we import, how we dispose of it, or with what and where we build.
“The dump is smouldering, our cancer rates are increasing and we don't know why, but I believe it has to do with the food we eat and what we are bringing into the country.”
And while he may be preparing to bid farewell to the political stage, his devotion to serving his country remains steadfast.
“I certainly won't be retiring,” he reveals. “I plan to get back into real estate development, go back to North Caicos and hopefully be successful enough to pay it forward to the community that was so instrumental in my boyhood.”
It is high time, he says, that the advantages of the TCI's economic boon are spread beyond Providenciales to the sister islands in the shape of better clinics and schools.
“I believe these islands have a tremendous future if we can do these things right.”
One of the great beauties of age, he imparts, is reaching the point where one can focus on his legacies.
Given his time over, he wouldn't change much, save for garnering more life experience to better equip himself for the obstacles that accompany life in the public eye.
Asked about his proudest moments, being appointed an OBE in 2000 for services to government, something that “came as a complete shock”, is the pinnacle.
Ultimately, he would like to be remembered for his work helping to found some of the TCI's most critical institutions, such as the TCI Community College.
“I believe, if you did a poll on the streets, you would find most islanders would classify me as one of the most unpolitical politicians,” he adds, with a smile, “as someone who built institutions, and cared deeply about the people.”
• Freelance writer Gemma Handy is a former Associate Editor of the Turks & Caicos Weekly News. This article, which was first published on January 7, has been repurposed with their permission